The Ancient Faith
THE CONVERSION OF LYDIA
John W. McGarvey
I now read a lesson in the sixteenth chapter of Acts of Apostles, beginning with the sixth verse, where the writer, in speaking of Paul and Silas, Luke and Timothy, who made up the apostle’s company, says:
“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and when they were come over against Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia; and the spirit of Jesus suffered them not; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. There was a man of Macedonia standing, beseeching him, and saying, Come over into Macedonia and help us. And when he had seen the vision, straightway we sought to go forth into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the Gospel to them. Setting sail therefore from Troas, we made a straight course to Samothrace, and the day following to Neapolis; and from thence to Philippi, which is a city of Macedonia, the first of the district, a Roman colony [that is, it was a settlement of Romans in the midst of the Greek population surrounding it]: and we were in this city tarrying certain days. And on the Sabbath day we went forth without the gate by a river side, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down, and spoke to the women who were come together. And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, one that worshiped God, heard us; whose heart the Lord opened, to give heed unto the things that were spoken by Paul. And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us.”
Thus I have read to you the inspired account of the conversion of Lydia and her household. This passage of Scripture has been brought freshly to the memory of all engaged in Sunday-school work, by having been the Sunday-school lesson a few Lord’s days ago, and this is a special reason why I should make it the subject of discourse this morning. I should be very glad always if the passages of Scripture on which I discourse on the Lord’s day, were fresh in the memories of the audience, because then they could be more interested in what is said; they could see more clearly the point in any truths presented; and they could decide more surely whether any erroneous positions are taken by the preacher.
In studying any case of conversion recorded in the New Testament, for the purpose of understanding fully the subject and method of conversion to Christ, I think it wise, as we have done in examining two preceding cases, to look carefully first at the person who is the subject of the change.
Let us see if we can form a clear and distinct idea of the woman here introduced, previous to the time that the apostles came into her presence. I think this will be well worth all our study, independent of the question of the process of conversion. I think you will find it true all through the Bible, that every woman introduced in Scripture story in any conspicuous way, is a remarkable one—remarkable for some striking virtues, or for some equally striking vices; and therefore well worthy of our consideration in studying human character. This woman, when she was introduced to us, was not at home. She was a woman of Thyatira, a city in Asia Minor, even now a town of some ten thousand inhabitants, mostly Turks and Arabs; and she is presented to us in the city of Philippi, about three hundred miles away from her home, across land and sea. We find her a business woman, engaged in selling purple cloths. The purple dye was the most costly known to the ancients, and consequently it was never applied to cheap goods; only the most costly fabrics were dyed purple; consequently, to be arrayed in purple and fine linen, was to be rich; and the Emperor was sometimes referred to as the man who wore the purple. She was not then engaged in a cheap business that required no capital. If she was employing her own capital in purchasing and selling these goods, as is most probable (for the modern system of traveling salesmen had not been introduced), then she was a woman in comfortable circumstances, and yet dependent, apparently, upon her own womanly exertions for her livelihood, having no husband, brother, father or friend to depend upon, or, if she had, preferring to be independent. Now I have known a great many business women, and I have very frequently found that their business contact with the ungodly world, struggling and pushing, and working all manner of selfish schemes, each to get the best of another, has often robbed them of some of the more delicate traits of womanly character, and they are frequently worldly women with very little religious character or sentiment. I wonder if business relations in a heathen land had such an effect upon Lydia. We are told in the very brief account we have of her—brief, but extremely suggestive—that she worshiped God. Nobody in that city worshiped God, except as the result of Jewish education and training. All the rest were heathen. Lydia, then, was either a Jewess of Thyatira, or one of those devout women who, having attended the Jewish synagogue, had been made a convert to the Jewish faith. We are not able to determine by the brief statement of the, text, which of these is her true position, and I presume it makes no difference. She worshiped God.
At the time that we are introduced to her, it was the Sabbath day. Now in this heathen town of Philippi, and all over the world, the Sabbath day was unknown, except among the Jews and the proselytes of the Jewish religion. You find Lydia here, then, engaged in business; and in a line which was pursued, most probably, by many others in the city of Philippi. When the Sabbath day dawns shall she keep her shop open, in order to maintain competition with other dealers who know nothing of the Sabbath? Many a man who professes to be a Christian, in our cities and all over our land, in all the different lines of business, labors through the Lord’s day like any other day, when it is customary for men in his line to do so, claiming that he is compelled to do it in self-defense. Lydia was not a woman of an india-rubber conscience. When the Sabbath day came, her house of business was closed; it remained closed all day long. There was no back door into that store; she and the women whom she had employed with her in the business, could not be found there. They had left home, and left the town, and gone outside of the city to spend the Sabbath. On the occasion mentioned in our text, they were out there at a place of prayer, spending the holy day on the bank of the stream which flows close by the walls of the city—doubtless under the shade of over-hanging trees; and from the fact mentioned that Paul supposed there was a place of prayer out there, we have reason to believe that this had been the custom of that group of women for a considerable time past. Lydia, then, was a woman of business; she was a woman of fidelity to her God, whom the temptations and competitions of trade could not seduce from the faithful observance of the law of her God; and that, too, when she was far away from home among strangers, where there was no Jew perhaps in all the city to carry back a report of her derelictions, had she been less faithful to the Lord than she was. Now I have known men and women who conduct themselves with great propriety, when they are at home where everybody knows them; but if you could put on that invisible coat which Jack the Giant Killer was said to wear sometimes, and follow them when they are far away in some great city, where they think nobody knows them, you might be astonished. Lydia would bear watching, although there was no one there to watch her, and to report to the elders of the synagogue in Thyatira any departure from strict propriety; and although there seems to have been no synagogue in Philippi, no men there to assemble together and conduct the usual services of the Sabbath, still, she and those women that were with her resorted to this place of prayer as faithfully as though the elders were there to conduct the service.
There is one remark made in connection with the conversion of Lydia which has attracted to it especial attention, and that is the statement that the Lord opened her heart. Have you ever raised the question, what was the defect in Lydia’s heart which required the Lord to open it? I once put that question to a gentleman with whom I was conversing, and he said, “Why, of course, Lydia, like all other unregenerate persons, was totally depraved, and it required a direct divine influence upon her dead soul to awaken her so that she could hear the word of the Lord preached with profit.” I had to tell him that he was not well acquainted with Lydia, and I pointed out to him the indications which we have just given of the high and grand religious character of the woman, putting to shame many a Christian woman of the present day. Whatever may be true, then, of the doctrine of total hereditary depravity, if Lydia had ever been in that condition she had certainly well gotten over it at this time. Still, there was some defect about her heart, so that in order to bring about her full and complete establishment in Christ Jesus our Lord, her heart must be opened. Now to open the heart is a figurative mode of expression. The heart is compared to something that is closed up; something that is narrow, contracted; and it must be opened, or expanded with grander and nobler feelings. Have you in the congregation—I hope you have not—a member noted for penuriousness? Suppose some preacher were to address the audience in a very powerful and telling way in behalf of some charitable institution, and you see that brother, who usually puts only a nickel into the charity box, throw in a twenty dollar bill; you would say, He has opened his heart; or, That preacher has opened that brother’s heart. You mean by opening the heart, that the heart which had been contracted and narrow has been filled with a grander, nobler sentiment than usual; and haven’t you noticed, whenever some grand, heart-swelling sentiment gets possession of you—haven’t you noticed your chest heave and expand, sometimes tiding vent in overflowing tears! I think it likely that this physical sensation first suggested the figure of opening the heart.
Well, with this idea of what it means, and a little more knowledge of the relation which the Jews all sustained to the Christian faith, I do not think we can be at much loss to find what the trouble was with Lydia’s heart. The Jews believed, and the proselytes were taught the same, that the Messiah who was promised, would be nothing more than an earthly Jewish king. And as he would be a Jew, the Jews looked forward to his reign with national pride; they anticipated the day when to be a Jew would be the highest honor that a human being could boast; and so they were full of sensual, narrow, selfish, national feeling, when they thought of the Messiah who was to come. When an apostle would come before a congregation of such Jews and present the humble Jesus, point to His having established a kingdom not of earth, but one spiritual and eternal, it shocked them—fearfully shocked all of those ambitious feelings of the Jewish heart; hence Paul’s saying that Christ crucified was a stumbling block to the Jews. Now that was a defect in their hearts. Lydia had it; and Peter had it until he was brought to the house of Cornelius. That feeling had to be removed from Lydia, or she would reject the Gospel. When it gave way, she welcomed into her heart this crucified Messiah.
There is another question about the opening of Lydia’s heart which is worthy of a moment’s passing notice; that is, the effect of it. The remark, that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart that she attended to the things spoken by Paul, is very commonly understood to mean that it enabled her to listen favorably to the Gospel which Paul preached; but that is a mistake. Our text reads differently. The first statement about her is that Lydia “heard us.” That includes the fixing of her attention upon all that was said. The second statement is, “the Lord opened her heart.” That was subsequent to her hearing. Then the third is, that she “gave heed to the things that were spoken by Paul.” Now there were certain things appointed for every person like her to do, and she gave heed to those things. She believed what he preached. She repented of whatever sins she knew herself to be guilty of; and she was baptized; then the text says “when she was baptized, she entreated us to come into her house.” The result of opening her heart was, that she gave practical attention to the duties prescribed for her, having heard already, before her heart was opened. There is the simple story of this good woman’s conversion to Christ.
The question might be raised, What need had she of being changed at all? Would not she go to heaven if she died as she was? Perhaps she would, if Christ had not been crucified and ascended into heaven, and if the law had not gone forth that men should believe in Him and obey Him, in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting; but that had been the established law of heaven for quite a number of years, and it was necessary, if Lydia, under the Christian dispensation, should be saved, that she should hear of Christ, that she should believe in Him, and that she should come to Him as the mediator between God and men, to obtain the forgiveness of her sins. This she did at once—as soon as she heard the Gospel message.
But we are not yet done with the subject of the opening of Lydia’s heart. The statement of the text is that the Lord opened it. And there has been a great deal of speculation as to how the Lord did it. Many people, as soon as they read a statement of that kind, imagine a direct exercise of God’s power upon the heart, and I am sure if there is any case of conversion recorded in Acts of Apostles where we would expect God to proceed in that way, if he ever does, this case of Lydia is the one. For observe, while she was going out from Sabbath to Sabbath praying on the bank of that river, there was not a preacher of the Gospel on the continent of Europe in which she lived. There was not one who was able to tell the story of Christ, within hundreds of miles of where she resided; and if God ever does open the hearts of men and women whose prayers he is hearing, to bring them entirely into harmony with the divine will, without the preached word, we should expect it to be done in that instance. But it was not done. On the contrary, the text clearly reveals to us a deliberately laid out method that God pursued, in order to reach the heart of that woman, and we are now to trace it. It was a most interesting sight to God and angels to see that group of women every Sabbath day. No faithful, true-hearted men or women ever assembled to worship God, especially under trying circumstances, that it did not interest every intelligent being in the heavenly world. God heard those prayers, and he determined, to speak in the human style, he determined. to answer them. He does not begin to work for the salvation of Lydia, as he did for the Ethiopian eunuch, by sending down an angel. He does not begin, as in the case of Cornelius, by sending her an angel and telling her where to send for a preacher; but He begins this time by working on the preachers in a different way. Paul and Silas, Luke and Timothy, were at this time traveling together and preaching through the different districts of Asia Minor. Did you notice that geographical sketch that I read you in the beginning? These geographical sketches, when we come to them, are sometimes, like genealogical tables, regarded as very dry reading. But when you come to such a passage as that, let me suggest that you always raise the suspicion in your mind that it is dry because you do not see through it. Nearly always there are some most precious truths imbedded in those dull passages in the Scriptures. The preachers had finished their work in Phrygia and Galatia, and they resolved that they would next go down and preach in the district then called Asia, of which Ephesus, where Paul afterward preached nearly three years, was the principal city. But the Spirit of Jesus, dwelling in these inspired men, said, No, don’t go to Asia. Paul could not understand why this was. Then they consulted, and sought to go into Bithynia. Now Asia was off to the left; Bithynia off to the right. But the Spirit would not suffer them to go into Bithynia, so, as they had finished up all behind them, and were not allowed to go either to the left or to the right, they moved straight forward; and passing by the little district called Mysia—passing it by in the sense of not stopping there to preach—they struck Troas, on the shore of the Ægean sea. They had gone as far as they could without a ship. And if they take a ship, where, among all the seas, will they go? They were thoroughly non-plussed; and they wondered, no doubt, as you and I would wonder, why this mysterious over-ruling by the Spirit of God? But we can see it. God was hearing those prayers over on the bank of that stream, and he was working to get these preachers there. They went to bed that night puzzled, and in the night Paul has a vision. He seems to see, away across the sea, standing on the shore of Macedonia, a man beckoning to him and calling out, “Come over into Macedonia and help us.” Of course this was an impossibility, but we often see impossibilities in our dreams. The next morning Paul tells of his vision, and Luke says, we concluded that “God had called us to preach the Gospel to them;” that that was the reason we were not allowed to go to Asia, or Bithynia. The Lord wants us over there. So, says Luke, “Straightway we sought to go forth into Macedonia.”
The expression, “We sought to go,” is well chosen here; because they could not go down any day to the foot of First street, as you do, and get on a steamer bound up or down the river. Very seldom would there be a ship in that little town of Troas; and when there was, it would not usually be sailing to Macedonia, but to some one of the great cities, like Athens, or Corinth, or Ephesus. So, they “sought to go,” and when they went down to the wharf, there was a ship. I suppose they called out, just as you and I would, “Where is this vessel bound?” “To Macedonia,” is the answer. “Can we get passage on it?” “Yes.” “When will she sail?” “Today. Come on board, if you wish to go.” And they went on board. The vessel weighs its anchor, is soon out in the open sea, and here comes another expression of the author which you must notice. The truth is, my dear friends, you are never safe in overlooking a single word when you are studying the Bible. That expression is, “We made a straight course to Samothrace.” You can not make a straight course on a sailing vessel, unless you have a favorable wind; otherwise, you have to tack. The wind was blowing in the right direction. If you will read in the twentieth chapter, you will find that when they sailed back over that water, it took them five days. Now they ran it in two days, and that shows that the wind not only blew from a favorable quarter, but that it was blowing a stiff breeze. I imagine those faithful preachers, when in the open sea, and, seated under the over-hanging awning, were enjoying the cool breeze, having a conversation somewhat like this—What good luck we have had today. We found a vessel in the harbor; we found one that was sailing where we wished to go. We found that there was room on board for us to take passage; and now that we are out in the open sea, see how favorably the wind blows; see how the sails swell, and how the good vessel plows through the water. We will soon be there. What good luck! Was there any luck about it? Oh! we can see so plainly, and Luke saw it afterward, that the hand which holds the winds and guides the mariner over the sea, the hand which had guided that vessel into the port of Troas, was guiding it now, to bear those preachers onward in answer to the prayers of those women. God had been hearing those prayers, and was preparing to answer them. He was working for the opening of Lydia’s heart. They landed on the shore of Macedonia. They looked around. Nothing here but a little village, Neapolis—new city. They learn that about ten miles in the interior is the famous city of Philippi, rendered famous by the great battle which decided the fate of the Roman Empire. They immediately determine to begin their work in that city. The Lord does not over-rule them any longer now, but leaves them to find their own way. They are in that city certain days, and on the Sabbath, they supposed that there was a place of prayer by the bank of the River Gangas, which flows by. I do not know why they supposed it, unless it was from something they heard on the street about some women going out there every seventh day. They guessed that these were Jewish women, with a place of prayer out there; and as this was a heathen city, given up on the Sabbath day to heathen practices, as soon as they heard this, you might know which way they went. A stranger comes io Louisville to spend a night. There is a prayer-meeting over in that church; there is a theatre over here. To which will he go? That depends on who he is. Paul and Silas, as soon as they heard there was a prayer-meeting, did not hesitate. When they arrived, they sat down by those women. Oh! the simplicity of those apostles! Paul did not put up a temporary pulpit; he did not hunt around for means of giving dignity to the meeting. They all sat down on the green grass, or the bare ground, and I have wondered why the women did not get up and leave when those strangers came and sat down by them. I think it must have been because they could see in the faces of these men, that they were not the kind of men to be afraid of. They allowed them to sit down and begin to talk; and what a talk it was! No formal sermon, but a plain conversational deliverance to these pious and godly women, of the wondrous news of a glorified Redeemer, who had been slain and buried, but was now sitting on the throne of heaven, ruling over heaven and earth for the church. Now then, when it is all through, when Lydia and those women accept the truth, and are baptized then and there without delay, showing how willing they were to walk in the way of the Lord, Luke looks back over the journey, the long, weary labor, the doubt and the uncertainty, and he sees it all explained. The Lord was hearing the prayers of these women, and in all of these strange movements He was simply reaching out toward the heart of Lydia and the others, that He might open their hearts to receive and obey the Lord. Is not that wonderful? That arm which moves the universe, is moved often by the prayers of very humble creatures; while heaven and earth and men are moved about under the guiding hand of God, to answer those prayers.
I wonder if God ever does anything like this for you and me. It is the word of the Lord that conveys to our hearts the mind and power and will of heaven; but how did it happen that that particular preacher preached to us? How did he happen to be there, and how did I happen to be there, when my heart was opened? Oh, my friends, if you had an inspired writer, his mind enlightened by Him who sees all things, you might have as strange a story written about yourselves as was recorded about Lydia. I imagine that wherever in the broad earth there is a poor struggling soul, wrapt in darkness and struggling for light, sacrificing self in order to please God, God has an eye on that person; He hears those prayers, and He will over-rule and over-turn and direct, until the truth shall, some way or other, reach that soul.
Now, to test this matter, this question I have just propounded—have you ever felt in your heart something like an opening sensation, while you have listened to the earnest presentation of the Gospel? Or, when in the silent, quiet hour, you have read in your New Testament some of the teachings of Jesus, some of the earnest, burning words of those faithful apostles, have you not felt a sensation within like the expansion of your heart? Your heart has been closed through sin. It must be opened, by removing the power of sin which draws it together in selfishness and worldliness, and by putting within it the expanding love of God and humanity, if you shall be saved. Have you ever felt that God was working with you as He worked on Lydia? And why did not you attend to the things that were told you to do, as Lydia did? Why have you postponed and neglected your duty? Ah, when you felt your heart beginning to open, you exerted all the strength of your will to close it. You resisted the living God; and hence you are now where you were then; and not until you cease thus to close up the heart that God would open, is there any chance for your soul’s salvation. Will you cease that effort now? Do you feel any way drawn toward Christ and toward God this morning? Are there nobler, grander sentiments in your soul, and your heart opening to receive the Redeemer? I beg you in Jesus’ name to hesitate no longer, but let your heart fly wide open, and take in all the precious love of God and Christ. Obey him with a true heart in full assurance of faith, while you have the opportunity.
[This was taken from J.W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville, Kentucky (1894). Subtitles were added for reading ease].